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Software Freedom Day

Software freedom promotes respect for human rights.


The 20th of September is Software Freedom Day. Hundreds of groups in more than 90 countries celebrate the benefits of free software. These events don't get much media attention, but they should remind us that transparent, sustainable technology is important to everyone. [1]

Software Freedom Day began in 2004, but the free software movement began much earlier. In September, 1983, Richard Stallman announced his plan to write a free software system that he called GNU, spelled G-N-U. In 1985 he proclaimed The GNU Manifesto, which remains a key statement of the ideology of software freedom.

Free software is not about cost. It's about liberty. According to The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, everyone has the right to freedom of expression and participation in society. The expression of these rights entails software freedom: the freedom to study and modify source code, the freedom to share software with other people, and the freedom to store and exchange data in open formats.

The concept of software freedom may seem alien to many people. It took me 20 years to fully embrace it. I wrote my first computer program in 1971 and then developed proprietary software in the 1980s. I made a little money from my software, but I began to realize that my activities somehow violated my value system.

In the late 1980s events in China and eastern Europe made me think seriously about human rights, especially freedom of expression. At that time I was studying the Unix operating system and communicating with others around the world on Usenet. I could see that the Internet might someday enable people to freely share experiences and ideas. Along with others, I realized that global participation would require open data formats and that people would need freedom to develop, modify, and share software in order to make the Internet work.

By 1992 all of these ideas had come together. I was able to run a free operating system on my personal computers [2] and to use free software as a major part of a new computer network at my university. Since then I've done most of my computing with free software, and I've taught more than a thousand university students how to use the GNU Emacs text editor and other excellent free software. [3]

Software freedom gets little media attention these days, but I still have a lot of hope. I'm a member of the Free Software Foundation (Associate Member #4748), and I'm very happy that many people are showing their respect for human rights on Software Freedom Day.


  1. Another major event will be on the 24th of September, when a large coalition of companies, NGOs, and individuals will launch a global petition to stop software patents.
  2. I began with 386BSD, tried several GNU/Linux operating systems, and since about 1995 or 1996 I've used mostly FreeBSD and sometimes OpenBSD.
  3. Free software has come a long way in 25 years. The Free Software Foundation and UNESCO now list hundreds of excellent packages in the Free Software Directory, and courts have upheld the rights of developers who use the GNU General Public License. [See also, A Quick Guide to GPLv3.]

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Greg Peterson <>
Kyoto Notre Dame University
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